“Thanks a lot,” I heard the woman say as she piled napkins into her free hand. She sounded like she meant it.
Curious to investigate such a blatant display of sincere gratitude, I peered at the woman over the top of my glasses like she was a specimen on display, and I was tasked with dissecting her very being. She wore a red hat and stood so straight that I could see it almost teetering off the top of her head. She was very quick to laugh, countering whatever the man behind the cart said with ease. His eyes twinkled in response. They looked like they were having a good time. That must be nice. As soon as that reflection processed, I immediately felt my face contort into a frown, feeling a wave of something cross over me. No, no, I thought. Refocus. Back to the hat.
It was a bold color choice on such a cold and dreary day. I wondered how it felt for her to crawl out of bed this morning. No that’s wrong, I thought, giving her another glance to assess. She probably didn’t crawl out of bed. She probably rose to meet the new day. You don’t wear a red hat if you’re not ready to meet the day. I pictured it in my head - the woman rising with grace, drawing open the curtains (because of course she had curtains, beautiful, elaborate, well-designed curtains), and grabbing that fucking bright, beautiful hat on the way out the door. Confident it was going to be a good day, confident that she would be able to handle anything that came her way. I wondered what that felt like.
I looked down at the parts of me I could see - black shoes, black pants, black sweatshirt, wads of cash clutched in my hand. Jittery. Ready for this interaction to be done before it even started. I didn’t want anyone to notice me. And notice me they didn’t, as the busy park continued to move with a vibrant energy. An older gentleman passed by on my right, I braced myself, ready to meet his gaze with my own. But the gaze never came as he focused on the path before him. I felt some frustration rise and I returned to glaring at the women. I didn’t start this day ready to meet it - that wasn’t my fault. I didn’t even own any curtains and I didn’t know why I suddenly felt judged about that fact. The intensity of feelings I was channeling must have shown because the woman in the red hat turned and looked at me. I shifted my gaze to the top of the cart with all the stealthiness of a newborn bird, stumbling through its newfound surroundings. I could feel her frowning as her attention fully shifted to me. Good, I thought. There does appear to be a range of emotions there. I ticked that in my mental checklist of things I now knew about this woman.
“Excuse me,” I heard a voice call in the distance. “Excuse me. Ma’am, what do you need.” I was so focused on being casual I didn’t notice I was basically standing in the middle of an open field. Glancing ahead, I saw the broad swath of time and land stretched between me and the cart. I shuffled forward, feeling awkwardness tinge my limbs. The woman in the red hat had moved away now, but I could feel her gaze still on me. I really didn't like the tables turning on me in this way.
The man running the cart stared at me quietly for one beat, and then another. I wondered what he was thinking. His busy day interrupted by this awkward, ninja-looking woman, who seemed unable to even answer a simple question, as she stood silently before him. Silently. Oh! The question. My brain kicked in again and I remembered I had a purpose here.
“A hot dog.” My mouth felt dry, but I rasped it out the best I could. Ahem. I tried again. “A hot dog. Please.” I tried to channel the manners I knew the lady in the red hat probably had.
“A hot dog.” The man peered at me curiously.
“Yes,” I asserted. Now that the words had made their way out of my being, I felt confident in them. I felt my irritation rise again that this man was challenging the one decision I felt sure of. “A hot dog.” I met his curiosity with my own stubbornness, “Please.”
“Ma'am,” he said. “It’s 8 in the morning,” I didn’t say anything to this. I didn’t know why he was sharing something so obvious with me. I knew what time it was. And I knew I wanted a fucking hot dog. My second round of silence had made the man uncomfortable, I think, because he quickly backed away from me, dropping something along the way. “I usually don’t have that stuff prepped this early, but I can make it. It will take me a second though.”
Feeling pleased that my request had landed, I tuned out again. I couldn’t see the woman in the red hat anymore. She probably had other things to get to today. I wondered what they were.
Oh. I remembered where I was again. My purpose for being here, and it laid in this man’s calloused hands. The man pressed the wrapped hot dog forward into my hands. It was warm and damp, and the smell wafted up at me. My stomach grumbled, and I felt a wave of gratitude pass over me. There it was. This is what the woman in the red hat was feeling. And now, I could have it too. A drop of ketchup spilled onto the hand that was clutching the hot dog, a bit like it was a lifeline. I loosened my grip, but the red spread, catching my sleeve. It felt a bit permanent, this spot of color. Maybe it would spread more, I thought.
“Thanks a lot,” I said. And, I think I really meant it.